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Disney’s Magic Formula For Recreating European Style In Orlando



Additional reporting by Caroline Reid

Hotels on Europe’s Riviera tend to have a distinct style. Their walls are often cream-colored and dotted with balconies which have ornate iron railings. Brightly-colored canopies hang over them and a domed roof usually sits on the top of the building. It isn’t the kind of structure you would expect to find in Orlando. Until now.

In December Walt Disney World swung open the doors to the Riviera Resort, a hotel which seasoned travelers will instantly find familiar.

Many of Disney’s hotels are famous for their whimsical style which reflects fantasy places or bygone eras. There’s the Contemporary Resort, a futuristic A-shaped building with a monorail track running through it, and the Grand Floridian, which looks like a sprawling seaside resort from the turn of the century. In contrast, the Riviera Resort was inspired by existing hotels and it shows.

It lies at the bottom of a winding palm tree-lined path and the first part of property that comes into view is a tall turret with a grey dome on top. Known as a cupola, perhaps the most famous example of it is colored pink and sits atop the palatial Negresco hotel in Nice on the French Riviera.

A little further down the coast is Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a tiny town sandwiched between France and Monaco. One of its most historic hotels is the Royal-Riviera and it’s easy to see the similarity between its logo and the two inter-locking letter Rs that represent the Riviera Resort. They are seen everywhere from the railings around Disney’s hotel to its cupola where a huge version of the logo is lit up at night.

The similarities are even more striking in Monaco where the Hôtel Métropole has a traditional French mansard-style curved grey roof with dormer windows set into it. It’s exactly what you see on looking up as you approach the entrance to Disney’s Riviera Resort. Its architecture is also reminiscent of Monaco’s fabled Hôtel de Paris which is perched in the middle of the Mediterranean principality like a giant wedding cake lined with elaborate balustrades and frilly plasterwork.

From the top floor of the hotel the coastline can be seen sweeping round from Italy next door all the way to Nice in the distance. It’s no coincidence that Disney’s Riviera Resort resembles hotels along this route.

“Overall we have a European expression but for our details and theming we really focused on the Riviera region between the areas of France and Italy,” says Missy Renard, Art Director at Walt Disney Imagineering. “We didn’t want to pick a particular hotel and recreate it. There’s no fun in that. Plus we are looking at a region that covers three countries so we didn’t want to boil them down to a site in one of them. Instead we took inspiration from many different things, which gave us our Disney artistic license, and then we brought it all together.”

Renard is a highly skilled designer with a 20-year career covering stints at themed hotel specialists WATG and BBGM, an internationally renowned architecture and interior design firm. In 2007 she became a senior interior designer at Imagineering, the division of Disney which dreams up its theme parks and hotels. It takes much more than the wave of a wand to develop them.

“Generally, resorts such as this take several years to go from concept to opening day,” says Renard. “At Walt Disney Imagineering, it all starts with story. In the early ‘Blue Sky’ design phases of a project like this, different themes are explored through visual storyboards, artistic interpretations and written narratives, merged with research and inspirations. Refinements continue until the cohesive concept takes shape, which sets the aesthetic and story vision for the resort.”

Expert teams covering various disciplines are then engaged to take the concept through to completion. They include architects, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, lighting designers, graphic designers, fine artists, costume designers and themed paint, plaster, and concrete artisans.

Renard adds that “Walt Disney Imagineering engaged in significant research of European features of design and the Riviera region’s history and environment, in terms of architecture, art, landscape, music, and decorative elements.”

The theme has a deep connection to Disney as Walt’s descendants came from France. His family name is of Norman French derivation and was originally spelled d’Isigny meaning that it came from Isigny-sur-Mer in Normandy. Walt first visited the region in 1918, aged just 17, when he landed in Cherbourg to become a paramedic in the army at the end of the First World War.

He returned to France after setting up his eponymous company and Renard says that on a trip with his wife Lillian in 1935, Walt “sent back over 300 book titles to our studios for inspiration. Everything from stories, novels, fables and illustrations.”

This collection inspired the choice of books on the shelves in Voyageurs’ Lounge, a wood-panelled drawing room in the Riviera Resort. Black and white photos from Walt’s travels line the walls and cabinets contain merchandise from Disney’s early days as well as historic international editions of Disney comics.

Renard says that “from a Disney history perspective, we collaborated with the Walt Disney Archives and The Walt Disney Family Museum. We also read numerous books and interviews related to Walt and Lillian’s European trips and their Riviera visits finding inspiration in what they saw, where they stayed and the images documenting their journeys.” It is far from the most obvious nod to Disney’s history in the hotel.

That can be seen on the walls inside the hotel as some corridors contain foreign posters for Disney movies. The art is even more subtle in the rooms. In addition to creating authentic-looking Art Deco posters, the Imagineers commissioned more than 40 pieces which depict Disney characters in classic artistic styles from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

“We looked at the different works, movements and the styles that came out of the Riviera region and specifically brought them into our art collection at the resort,” says Renard. “So we have pieces that are inspired by Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and the subjects that the different artists were studying at the time that they were in residence at hotels on the Riviera or when were visiting. Then we brought in our Disney characters and icons to make an eclectic collection.”

The artwork ranges from sketches, water colors and oil paintings to hand painted murals and even mosaics which stretch across the inside of two 20 feet high outdoor archways. Based on classic Disney movies Peter Pan and Tangled, each one is 9 feet wide by 63 feet in length and is formed from more than 500,000 hand cut and hand laid glass pieces. The hotel is far less flamboyant inside.

Dark woods and cream colors abound in the public areas giving them the subtle and luxurious look of a liner from the golden age of cruising. The interior of the elevators is lined with wood and mirrors which have been artificially stained to look like they have weathered over time. Upscale objets d’art stand at the end of the corridors which have deep blue carpets adding to the nautical feel.

The rooms look equally chic with wooden and brass fittings, light-colored soft furnishings, marble floors in the bathrooms and Art Deco crystal light shades. It’s a classic style which can be seen in recently refurbished rooms in Grande Dames on the Riveria like the Martinez in Cannes and Monaco’s Hôtel de Paris.

In their heydays, well-heeled guests would stay for weeks on end at these properties so many of them had extensive on-site services such as banks, barbers and shops. As the Riviera Resort is inspired by this heritage, it seems fitting that it is part of Disney’s Vacation Club timeshare program.

This means that in addition to allowing overnight stays in its 300 rooms, guests can buy a stake in the property’s vacation homes. These guests tend to stay for longer periods than ones in typical hotels and it appears that every inch of the Riviera Resort’s rooms has been designed with that in mind. It doesn’t take long to see.

There’s a coat hanger by the door and a small table where guests can leave essential items. Kitchenettes with a microwave and dishwasher are standard along with a dining table. Storage space is found in the most unlikely of locations – under the dining chairs, inside the footstools and, unlike many theme park hotels, under the bed so you can push your suitcase out of the way.

The sculpted headboard is another reminder of the historic hotels which inspired the Riviera Resort. Other touches are even more subtle.

“Some of the resort’s elements were designed to evoke the sense that the resort has history and has evolved to what we see today,” says Renard. “On the different exterior façades, variations can be seen in window and railing designs, roof styles, architectural detailing, awning and shutter designs and color, and shifting paint colors.”

Adding to the effect, the building itself isn’t symmetrical and has two turrets on one side. The property is an attraction in itself. Old-fashioned street lights are dotted around it and brown road signs, common on the actual Riviera, direct guests to different parts of the hotel. Even its orientation has been thought-through as it puts the hotel in direct sunlight all day long. It makes the most of it.

In addition to a chic family pool surrounded by neatly-arranged loungers, there’s a water play area with a 30 feet waterslide. It snakes around the outside of a stone tower resembling the lookout posts which were once common along the coast of Italy.

Even the staff fit the theme. Known as Cast Members due to the role they play in a themed environment, they greet guests with ‘bonjour’ in the morning and ‘bon soir’ after dark. Like their European counterparts, male Cast Members are smartly-suited whilst the women wear pale blue striped dresses. They host art classes and arrange tours of the pieces on display in the hotel.

There’s a patisserie (of course) but the highlight is the top floor Topolino’s Terrace. Named after the Italian translation of Mickey Mouse, it serves pasta which is made on site and proudly hangs in display cabinets in the entrance area.

It sets a high-end tone which continues inside with a chandelier made from intricate strands of glass shaped like pasta. Floor to ceiling windows and a terrace give glorious views of the fireworks at the nearby Epcot and Hollywood Studios parks. They erupt side-by-side one after another in an experience akin to a widescreen son et lumière. An even more astounding sight awaits lucky guests in the morning.

Epcot is split into two parts – one is home to futuristic attractions and the other is like a World’s Fair with pavilions themed to different countries. Soaring up from the one based on France is a model of the Eiffel Tower which can even be seen from the windows of some rooms at the Riviera Resort.

The icing on the cake is that the hotel is connected to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios by the Skyliner overhead gondola system. Not only is it convenient, but seeing it glide by from the room windows adds to European atmosphere as gondolas are perhaps most famous for zipping up and down the mountains in Italy and Switzerland.

The hotel will soon have you hankering for a trip to the actual Riviera and Disney even has a trick in its spell book to make that happen. Although the Mouse doesn’t have a theme park on the Riviera, its Adventures by Disney division provides group guided family vacations there. The only risk is that after you’ve experienced the Riviera Resort in Orlando, the real thing might not live up to expectations.

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